I first met Jack (names have been changed, yadda yadda) a couple months ago he said “boys, it’s time to get serious. We have some problems.” The company had been doing SEO and web development for a year and I had thought everything was fine. What could it be?
He then went over how his online retail business was only earning him about 17,000 dollars of pure profit a month, and asked what the problem was.
Somewhat surprised at the description of “failure” as we sat in his enormous custom garage surrounded by a boat, an RV, some ATVs and a truck – none of which were more than a year old – I asked for clarification on the problem.
The problem, as he explained it, was that he had been paying good money (a few hundred dollars a month) for SEO for a full year and he still wasn’t making as much as he “should” be.
“I might as well go work at Taco Bell!” he whined as 800 dollars of orders rolled in.
He told me about how there are four million Widget users in the US, so his 400 dollar Widget operators’ manuals ought to be selling by the tens of thousands every month.
Wanting to demonstrate that I was more than just “the SEO guy” and that I really understood marketing, I promised him I would investigate.
Over the following weeks, I applied my data analysis skills and started researching EVERYTHING I could. Competitors, analytics history, user flow, user experience, conversion rate, lead sources, and so on. I developed KPIs and created charts and graphs. I spent more hours on it than my hourly rate would justify in a full month of what Jack was paying, and I didn’t even charge him for it.
I told myself that Jack would be a long-time client if only we could get him the data he needed for good decision making.
Presenting the Data
In our next meeting, I went over everything. I showed him how a year ago he had been getting 200 unique visitors a day, and now he was getting 350. I showed him how his conversion rate was stable, and that sales from SEO leads had increased in number and value along with the increase in traffic. It was a clear victory – our work had put more money in his pocket, and that amount was increasing every month.
But Jack was not happy one bit.
See, what I didn’t know was that Jack didn’t want data. He wanted somebody to blame.
The story came out:
Jack told me about how this data couldn’t be right because he started this company in 1995 and started selling his Widget Guides online in 1997 and he had sold them for 600 dollars each and sold more of them back then, making him very very wealthy indeed.
The problem, as he explained it, was surely the SEO. After all, the product hadn’t changed. He hadn’t changed. By his reasoning, if only he was ranking well he would be selling so many more Widget Guides that he would be able to somehow survive the reduced price that the 2008 financial crisis had forced him into. Surely the issue was us. But if not us, then the website.
“I know the problem,” His brother, the Kato Kaelin (look it up) of the business said, jumping to his feet and approaching the large TV displaying his website. “It’s too many clicks.” He pointed at the call-to-action on the page. “This should just be “add to cart” and then BAM! They’re good.”
Jack latched on to this like a drowning man to a life preserver. The next hour was full of all the tweaks he insisted we accomplish to “fix” his suddenly ineffective website. Since we had made the site for him, this was still our fault in his mind. “I don’t know why you made me such an ugly site in the first place,” he said, forgetting how much he claimed to have loved it when it was made a year ago.
That month’s SEO budget was swallowed up by web edits. His security certificate company called him and tried to sell him on some sort of upgraded security certificate monitoring. When the certificate expired a few days later, Jack decided it was a sign that we had broken his site. When he didn’t refresh his cache and still saw the security certificate warning, he was sure we were wrong, the site was broken, and he was missing out on thousands of dollars even though orders were rolling in that very moment.
Things get too real for Jack.
I went in person to his home and taught him how to clear his cache, and to use a more up-to-date browser. We had yet another 2-hour long meeting and once again Jack quizzed me on why he wasn’t getting as many search engine sales.
“Jack,” I said, “as you know, sales go up and down. But the work we do – the SEO – is working. In fact, it’s working phenomenally well. I showed you how we have increased traffic. I showed you how we have increased sales. The problem is not the SEO. We have made changes to the site. The site is not converting any more effectively. The problem is not the website.”
We had a brief talk where I explained that the competition and the price are making the market tighter and tighter. He insisted that there were no more online competitors now than there were in 1997.
I described how a young office worker, instructed by her manager to find a Widget Guide as quickly as possible would jump online, see Jack’s guide for 400 dollars, and see a competitor’s guide for 150. Which do you think they would buy?
“But ours is obviously superior!” Jack said. Then he leaned in and jabbed a finger onto the table to emphasize his point, “Even the Federal Widget Counsel uses our guide because it’s better than their own.” He leaned back as if his point had been proved.
“But does the office worker know that?” I asked. “All they see is price. They don’t want to do the research. They don’t know they’re getting a crappy product. They only know they have to get a guide fast and cheap.”
Madness Resumes, and I Push Back.
Kato Kaelin jumped to the screen again. “That’s it! We change everything! Make sure the website tells them right away that this is the superior product.”
And Jack was sucked in again. The problem was the website. The problem wasn’t him, it wasn’t the increasingly saturated market, and most importantly: it wasn’t the price.
Jack would literally not even mention pricing. If I brought it up he remained completely silent. Even the idea of a sale from Jack’s wife was met with the wall of silent denial.
As Kato and Jack waved their arms around the screen I knew I was in a tough position. Should I just shut up and say “well, the customer is always right” and just do whatever he asks? Should I say “well, I did my part” and leave well enough alone? When the newest round of website revisions came though, including aligning some text *just so*, I sent the email. It went something like this:
I’m happy to work on this stuff for you, but I feel like I need to explain things fully and make sure you’re on board. Last month your whole SEO budget went to meetings and web edits. It looks like this month is going the same. The edits you have sent will take about X hours. Are you sure you want to have us off SEO for 2 months in a row? We’re happy to be your web guys, but I think that it wouldn’t be fair of me to take your money and not tell you what I think.
These edits will not affect your conversion rate. I personally think that you are going to be wasting your money on this and I suggest you continue to focus on SEO to drive additional traffic to the site which *does* bring in more sales, if not in the amounts you had hoped. We can have a talk about adwords and A/B testing and other ways to measure and generate demand. Are you sure you want us spending our time on these edits?
There was no reply for a week.
Finally came an email with a demand that we return the guide he had given us before, and an announcement that he had terminated our services.
Somebody moved Jack’s cheese (look it up), and he was going to stay in denial about it for as long as humanly possible.
The SEO’s Dilemma
As I thought about it afterwards, I realized this little crisis was a great illustration of the dilemma every SEO faces (or probably any service provider): eventually you’re going to reach a turning point where you either treat every problem as one you will solve – either by applying your specific service to it or trying to expand into new service areas – or you lose a client.
In other words: Lie, Grow, Or Lose.
The lie is that moment of clarity where you know perfectly that the client really doesn’t need what you offer, or would better be helped by something you know about but don’t offer (like a competitor!) and you tell yourself something like, “well, if the client doesn’t bother to research the issue, and they really WANT to work with me, who am I to tell them otherwise? They came to me, after all.”
Giving into The Lie means agreeing to whatever the client says because it means you’ll get your paycheck. It means treating every problem like a nail to be pounded because all you have is a hammer and then saying “huh, don’t know why it’s not working yet, but I’m sure it will!” when the client inevitably asks why there are holes all over the living room walls.
This is what most SEOs do: they simply offer the service needed even though they probably don’t even know clearly how it’s done. It happens in that moment where you have a great idea like “This guy really needs ads” or “This could be a story on the evening news” and then offer to try and set up the adwords campaign or do public relations or influencer marketing or content marketing or social media management or video production or…
Giving into growth can be both exciting and dangerous. But for small SEOs it can also be another form of The Lie – except this time the lie is “I can do this just as well as anybody, and at least the client is happy,” but there’s always an unspoken, “I hope the results are as good as they could be with somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
The other problem with this path in the digital marketing world is that you quickly increase your overhead as you run out of time in the day to take care of your SEO clients and still produce that stunning content you promised to get onto Linked-in Pulse or whatever.
Eventually companies in this pattern begin telling people “I’m sorry, we don’t accept accounts that small anymore,” and you find yourself with a dozen HUGE clients and a large staff to serve their increasingly broad needs. Then two of the big clients decide to ditch you for some reason they don’t ever tell you and the company is wiped out in an instant.
That’s a true story, by the way – I watched it happen to one of my competitors.
Actually, it almost happened to me with my first company. As my very first SEO client got bigger and bigger and bigger, moving into multiple states and dominating the competition and taking more and more of my time, the company I had created was on the verge of being lost should they ever decide to walk away.
In the business world, surely growth is the only option, and to choose to lose is unthinkable, right?
To accept the “lose” path means admitting something that we SEOs hate to recognize: if we do our jobs well, we likely won’t be needed much by the people we helped. Alternatively, if we don’t do our jobs well, our clients should try somebody else. Either way, there’s going to be a day when the SEO part of things will be diminished or gone.
The business cycle for SEO service providers means a constant flow of clients. When we accept loss as a part of the cycle, we can be genuinely helpful to our clients, and retain our integrity.
Sure, there are some clients who just really want somebody on-call who they can trust and count on for any “computery” thing. And that’s great! I love those kinds of clients. But we owe it to them and every other type of client to be honest and say, “I want to be clear about my limits and abilities. Given your situation, here’s what I suggest.”
What does it get you?
In the short run, choosing to lose hurts. It hurts your pride and it hurts your bottom line.
But I can’t tell you how many times we have had this kind of thing come back to help our company. Sometimes it’s referrals. Sometimes it’s old clients coming back after trying the “promise the world” guy from across town. Sometimes it’s consultant fees. I’ve even had people say “that’s fine, we don’t want somebody better/cheaper/faster. We want YOU.”
Most importantly, almost always it includes gratitude from the person you’re speaking with (except in the case of Jack) for being honest.